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President's plate being filled with one crisis after another

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Everywhere he turns, it seems, President Bush faces another dangerous international crisis that defies a simple solution.

The war against al-Qaida terrorists. An intractable Mideast conflict. The India-Pakistan standoff. An apparent inevitable showdown with Iraq.

When Bush goes to western Canada this week for the annual summit of the world's big seven industrial powers and Russia, these issues -- and questions about U.S. leadership -- are sure to dominate the agenda.

''These are huge crises which are now up to the boiling point,'' said Derek Mitchell, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bush continues to bask in the glow of high public approval ratings at home, but he is beginning to get mixed reviews on his crisis management.

Widespread praise greeted his performance in rallying a stunned nation after Sept. 11 and routing Afghanistan's Taliban government. The president's responses to more recent challenges, however, are drawing some criticism.

He intervened in the Middle East only after strong international pressure. He resisted a separate Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department for nearly nine months, until embarrassing revelations about intelligence failures and CIA-FBI backbiting began undermining public confidence.

His increasingly sharp comments on ending the regime of Saddam Hussein appear to leave him little room to maneuver, alarming European allies.

''You see him moving into much more complex situations which are full of trade-offs,'' said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton political scientist. ''So the question is -- is he up to speed?''

Greenstein said the jury is still out. He said Bush's circle of seasoned national security advisers -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- is a plus, even if they do not always agree with one another.

The president's Mideast policy is certain to be scrutinized at the Group of Eight summit in Kananaskis, Alberta.

Bush had hoped to outline his long-awaited plan last week well ahead of his Tuesday arrival in Canada. It is expected to call for a Palestinian state with provisional borders, contingent on a sweeping overhaul of Palestinian leadership.

Developments in the region interfered -- two suicide bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 Israelis and Israel began retaking Palestinian land -- so the president put off his speech.

Even before announcement of the plan, its broad outlines have drawn criticism from both sides: The Arab world wants more assurances and a clear timetable for Palestinian statehood, while Israel and its congressional allies say the terror bombing must end first.

''The terrorists are running the show today,'' asserted House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., a 2004 Democratic hopeful. ''We're not engaged enough.''

The timing of the bombing attacks are suspect.

''The enemies of peace launch these attacks at just those moments designed to upset any move in the right direction,'' said Samuel Lewis, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977-1985.

Asked whether Bush's policy was hostage to the will of terrorists, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded, ''Terrorists put everybody at hostage.''

When he took office in January 2001, Bush inherited a country at peace and in a record-long economic expansion. But as Bush himself frequently points out, the world changed on Sept. 11.

The major crises he faces are interrelated.

It will be hard for Bush to get any Arab world cooperation in moving against Iraq, for instance, unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quiets. Fear that al-Qaida terrorists might form an alliance with Baghdad -- and have access to its biological, chemical and possibly nuclear weapons -- is driving the harder line against Saddam.

Calming tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan also is important, not only to avoid a nuclear conflagration in South Asia but to retain Pakistan's front-line support in helping to achieve U.S. goals in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

''The administration's got a lot on its plate,'' said James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration. ''It's a very unsettled international environment.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.



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